Milan Kundera began his literary career as a poet, playwright, and critic before turning to short fiction. In the late 1960’s, he began devoting himself almost exclusively to long fiction, publishing several highly acclaimed novels and a miscellany, L’Art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel, 1988), as well as a dramatic “variation” on a favorite eighteenth century novel, entitled Jacques et son maître: Hommage à Denis Diderot (pr. 1970; Jacques and His Master, 1985). With director Jaromil Jires, he wrote a screenplay, adapted from his first novel ert (1967; The Joke, 1969).
Included among Milan Kundera’s many literary honors are the Prix Médicis for La Vie est ailleurs (1973; Life Is Elsewhere, 1974), the Prix Europa for literature, 1982; The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction for L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être (1984, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984); Académie Française Critics prize, 1987; Nelly Sachs prize, 1987; Independent Award for foreign fiction, 1991, and the Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society, 1985. His writing has been translated into many languages including Japanese, Spanish, Serbian, Finnish, and Greek.
Apart from his novels, Milan Kundera (koon-DEHR-uh) has published three linked volumes of short stories, Smêné lásky (1963; laughable loves), Druhy seit smných lásek (1965; the second book of laughable loves), and Tetí seit smných lásek (1968; the third book of laughable loves), which were published together in a definitive edition, Smné lásky (1970); seven of these stories appear in English translation in Laughable Loves (1974). Kundera started his literary career with poetry, publishing three collections of that genre. His first important contribution to literary criticism was his study of the Czech novelist Vladislav Vanura, Umní románu: Cesta Vladislava Vanury za velkou epikou (1960; the art of the novel: Vladislav Vanura’s search for the great epic). Kundera contributed to the revival of Czech drama with Majitelé klí (pr. 1961; the keys), Ptákovina (pr. 1968), and Jacques et son maître: Hommage à Denis Diderot (1970; Jacques and His Master, 1985). Kundera’s speech to the Union of Czechoslovak Writers’ Congress of 1967 was one of the high points of the cultural-political movement known as the Prague Spring; the essayistic talent revealed there has since been put to use in a series of striking essays, among the best known of which are “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (The New York Review of Books, April 26, 1984) and “The Novel and Europe” (The New York Review of Books, July 19, 1984). Two important essays that Kundera has published on the subject of fiction are L’Art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel, 1988) and Le Rideau: Essai en sept parties (2005; The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, 2007). He has also cowritten, with Costa-Gavras and Christopher Frank, the screenplay for the 1979 motion-picture adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel Clair de femme.
Milan Kundera became well known quite early in his career on account of his poetry. In his novel Life Is Elsewhere, however, he denounces poetry, and he later switched to prose, experimented in drama, and, finally, took a lively interest in the literary-political scene in Prague at the time of great excitement caused by the liberalization of the Czechoslovakian Communist regime. As far as Kundera was concerned, the time of his great breakthrough in literature and on the cultural scene that involved him also in politics came in 1967, following the publication of The Joke, a novel exemplifying the cultural and political sophistication of its author as well as of his country. This confluence of art and life, private and public, and philosophical and political domains is the principal characteristic of Kundera’s fiction, refined and finely honed in his subsequent novels.
Kundera has been the recipient of many prestigious literary prizes, including the Czechoslovak State Prize (1964), the Union of Czechoslovak Writers’ Prize (1968), the Czechoslovak Writers’ Publishing House Prize (1969), the Prix Médicis (1973), the Premio Mondello (1978), the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature (1980), the Jerusalem Prize (1985), the Académie Française Prize (1986), the Nelly Sachs Prize (1987), and the Austrian State Prize (1987). He has also received nominations for a Nobel Prize. Awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Michigan (1983), in 1986 Kundera became a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1990, he was made a Knight of the Légion Etrangère in France. He won the Jaroslav-Seifert Prize for his novel Immortality in 1994, and the next year he received the Czech Medal of Merits for his contribution to the renewal of democracy. The University of Vienna awarded him the Herder Preis in 2000, and in 2007 he was honored with the Czech Republic’s State Award for Literature.
Milan Kundera has written that, “Ideology wants to convince us that truth is absolute. A novel shows you that everything is relative.” How does his fiction reflect this belief?
The form of Kundera’s novels is not only unusual but also distinctive. What is that form and what does it add to or detract from the experience of reading his work?
How do Kundera’s works treat sexuality and relations between men and women?
Kundera is often described as a comic writer. What kinds of comedy does his work contain?
How important are politics to Kundera’s artistic vision and/or a reader’s response to his writing?
Kundera has described “the spirit of Prague” as involving “An extraordinary sense of the real. The common man’s point of view. History from below. A provocative simplicity. A genius for the absurd. Humor with infinite pessimism.” How does his work display, or not display, this spirit?
Kundera often places a version of himself in his fiction, as a first-person narrator or as a character. What effects does he achieve by doing this?
What elements of fiction—plot, character, setting, language, narrative voice, and theme—seem to be most important in Kundera’s work?
Kundera has said that, “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity; each work is an answer to previous ones.” With which previous work(s) does one of his novels seem to be in conversation?
Aji, Aron. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Critical essays by Ilan Stavans, John O’Brien, Octavio Paz, Charles Molesworth, Nina Pelikan Straus, and many others. Well-established essayists discuss “Kundera and the Eighteenth Century English Novel,” “The Cyclic Form of Laughable Loves,” and Kundera’s contribution to the novel form. There is also an essay by Carlos Fuentes, “The Other K.” This collection is a powerful tribute to the writer.
Banerjee, Maria Nemcová. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. A critical study of Kundera’s long fiction. Includes a bibliography.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Milan Kundera. New York: Chelsea House, 2003. A collection of essays representing the range of critical responses to Kundera, including an introductory overview by Bloom.
Boyers, Robert. “Between East and West: A Letter to Milan Kundera.” In Atrocity and Amnesia, The Political Novel Since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.
Boyers, Robert. “Milan Kundera: Meaning, Play, and the Role of the Author.” Critique 34 (Fall, 1992): 3-18. Argues that Kundera’s role as intrusive author is not as diametrically opposed to Roland Barthes’s announcement of the death of the author as one might suppose. Uses Barthes’s ideas as a theoretical tool to examine Kundera’s authorial stance and the kind of play that characterizes his fiction.
Brand, Glen. Milan Kundera: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. The starting point for any serious student of Kundera’s work. Includes an excellent introduction, an exhaustive primary bibliography, and a well-annotated bibliography of reviews and criticism.
Gaughan, Richard T. “‘Man Thinks; God Laughs’: Kundera’s ‘Nobody Will Laugh.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Winter, 1992): 1-10. An analysis of “Nobody Will Laugh” as one of the best examples in Kundera’s short stories of how comedy and laughter help resist the deadening effects of forced beliefs and reveal a common ground of understanding and solidarity.
Gopinathan Pillai, C. The Political Novels of Milan Kundera and O. V. Vijayan: A...
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